The Hero's Body by William Giraldi

The Hero's Body BY William Giraldi. Liveright. . $26.
The cover of The Hero's Body

I spent years of my adulthood poring over the documents related to my father’s death by car crash—news articles and photographs, police reports, his death certificate and autopsy. I have files of this stuff, and much more, in boxes above my wife’s closet. I’ve met the man who killed my father, once in 2008, at his back fence in Marion County, Florida, where, barring the eighteen months he spent in prison, he’d lived his whole life, and again in 2013, after chasing him into the woods by his house. All this settled nothing. I know the aimlessness of grief. So does William Giraldi.

The Hero’s Body, a book in part about the motorcycle crash that killed Giraldi’s father. It’s actually two books in one, labeled that way within its pages—practically a perfect split. Before detailing the crash and its aftermath, Giraldi first tells of his teenage bodybuilding. He really went for it: diet, massive weights, camaraderie, steroids, public competition. The second book tells the story of Giraldi’s father’s obsession with high power motorcycles—insanely, suicidally powerful bikes—and his death under a Pennsylvania guardrail at the age of forty-seven. He went for it, too: the Yamaha R1, with a top speed, in 2000, the year of the crash, of 170 mph. A witness reported Giraldi Sr. “traveling approximately 80 MPH” when he turned onto Slifer Valley Road in Springfield Township. His son, the writer, knows better: “That’s a good guess, eighty—I wish it were true. At eighty, an R1 is just getting warmed up. The faster it goes, the better it works. Unless there’s that turn you don’t know is there, in which case it and you cease working altogether.”

Obsession and extremity, masculinity, and the heroism of Giraldi’s title are the major themes. Christ haunts the pages. So does family, and the strange confederations families inspire, plus the ways they can fall apart and be destroyed—by death, say, or by a parent who walks away, as Giraldi’s mother does, leaving behind a broken husband who, once the kids are grown, blasts his way through an uncertain turn, literally chasing his own father, also a motorcyclist, who was leading the pack on the day of the crash.

Giraldi is obsessed with reading: “Nothing except literature,” he writes, “was more intrinsic to my adolescent identity, my half-formed conception of self hood, than muscle strength and the Greco-Roman aesthetics of a champion.” Throughout his life, and so through both halves of the memoir—his heavy lifting and his grief—books, lines of prose, and lists of writers appear not only as a “balm for confusion or curiosity,” he says, but also as a “form of deliverance,” a “vibrant and sanative” religion.

Giraldi stole books as a child. Reading was the only thing that set him apart from his weightlifting pals. There’s pleasure for the reader, too, in Giraldi’s impossibly easy movement, in consecutive paragraphs, from the 1977 Schwarzenegger docu-drama Pumping Iron to Tolstoy’s image from War and Peace of the body as “a machine for living.” In Book II, the pages accounting for the days following his father’s death are filled with lines from Milan Kundera’s Slowness (“The man hunched over his motorcycle can only focus on the present instant of his flight. …”), the writing of Proust, and the Robert Lowell line: “A savage servility slides by on grease.” The book’s most moving passage is about the power of literature to return us to ourselves:

[I]n the weeks and months after my father’s death, literature was, as it had always been, my only hint of solace, the only medium equal to my woe, the only effective accomplice in the arduous work of return, of returning to some version of myself before my father’s crash, a self irrevocably altered but one I might still recognize in my midnight.

Still, a common lesson from the book’s two narratives—and, for the most part, they do feel distinct—concerns the insularity of one’s obsessions even in the midst of community or, in The Hero’s Body, brotherhood, always brotherhood. Unable to imagine the depth of his father’s need “to soar after decades of rectitude and responsibility,” Giraldi himself admits: “My own living seemed so paramount.” While central to his character, the literature of Giraldi’s life comes to seem like a personal religion, where a line from Auden or Ovid or Wilde (or Whitman or Larkin or Cesare Pavese, or Dickinson, and so on) is enough to gloss an experience or canonize his grief.

The other literature Giraldi obsesses over looks like the material I turned to in my own grief, years after my father died. Giraldi reads his father’s personal papers, his death certificate, a Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Accident Report filed by the police (“twelve tedious pages”). Confronted with the name of the corner, Scott M. Grim, he thinks, “How could I have made up such a name? … To name a coroner ‘Grim’ in a novel would be a witless move, and yet our lives deliver us these witless moves and leave us to be confounded by them.” Information recorded by the police is equally confounding:

[D]ata are deliberately cryptic: box 37, body type, is marked with the number 20. Box 50, initial impact point—meaning, I think, the guardrail—is marked with the number 9. They didn’t think to include a key for me to decode these digits, and so I’m left wondering what “20” means for my father’s body type, and why the guardrail has been designated a “9.” You can make yourself batty with this.

Giraldi even close-reads the name of the road where his father died: “The word Slifer gives off a serpent’s hiss, suggests sinews and dips. Eliminate the first and last letter and you are left with life, with the inverse of what the road now meant to us. Eliminate only the S and you have lifer: one who gives a lifelong commitment—to motorcycles and manliness, yes, but there’s no commitment as lifelong as death, no commitment like the commitment to the grave.” Giraldi can make you batty with this kind of idiosyncratic fixation. If the words of Auden, Ovid, Whitman, and Proust, come to feel arbitrary, through the grief of The Hero’s Body, the literature of bureaucracy—of medical forms and street signs—stands no chance.

I’ve never felt more inside the grief of my own father’s death than when I read this, from my father’s autopsy, for the first time: “Minor tears are noted in the anterior surface corresponding with these sights of adjacent rib fractures. Esophagus is unremarkable. Stomach contains a small amount of food with undigested vegetable fragments.” My father had an unremarkable esophagus. What I know, too, is that he’d eaten some vegetables in the hours before he died, which is important to me, though any detail might be. I also know he died after scallop fishing in a place called Deadman Bay. I don’t have to play with these words to make them meaningful.

But reading this way—and then writing this way—when one’s own grief feels aimless and voracious, as Giraldi’s still seems to, makes no room for the reader, even one who has his own pile of books—Didion, Roth, Eggers—pointing him back to some recognizable version of himself, even one who’s traveled Newberry Road near Jonesville, some sixty miles east of Deadman Bay. The Hero’s Body contains beauty, solace, humor, a whole reference library. Giraldi ends with a coda about becoming a father to two sons. Where his father is concerned, it’s not our reading but his own living—and by this I mean his own living through grief—that still seems paramount.

Scott Korb is the author of Light Without Fire: The Making of America's First Muslim College.